When Companies Don’t Know When to Stop

I’ve been wondering whether some of the major high-tech companies among the FAANG gang, don’t know when to stop their “continuous improvement,” a term revered by the Japanese in the 90s when they continually improved their products. My observation is we are seeing “continuous degradation” instead.

It seems these companies might have too many engineers spending too much time on the wrong tasks, continuing to invent after the products have reached a level of excellence. I see one example after another and imagine how it might come about. Perhaps these companies have engineers that need to justify their high pay, so they do what comes naturally, keep coming up with new ideas. But in doing so, they run the risk of making their products worse.

Take Facebook, for example. When it allowed us to share vacation photos and updates with our friends and relatives, it was fun to use. I’d be able to see my daughter’s photos when she was vacationing in Hawaii every day, providing peace of mind along with a smile. It was much more effective and less intrusive than phone calls. But over time we all know what happened. Facebook added news that was full of fake and incendiary stories. It took more time to digest them than just looking at a photo, so Facebook figured out that news was better because we spent more time with it. And every change Facebook made was to extend our time of engagement. They took a delightful, pleasing experience and turned it into one that created anger, frustration, and was just no longer fun.

Another example is what Apple has done to its MacBook line. Five years ago, they had some of the best notebooks in the industry, far ahead of the competition. If you compare today’s MacBooks to those of five years ago, they’ve regressed. They have far fewer ports, no memory card slot, no headphone jack, no longer the beloved MagSafe power connector, and have some of the worst keyboards in the industry. While they attribute some of these changes being needed to make their products thinner and lighter, that’s not true, because many Windows notebooks are just as thin and light in weight, while still retaining the ports and excellent keyboards. The engineers should have left well enough alone.

Then there’s Google. We understand that their business model is to learn about us and direct more relevant advertising to us, and we agreed to have them track our travels in return for using Google Maps. We chose to use Gmail with its huge amount of storage and effective search in exchange for allowing them to scan email content to serve up more relevant ads. But now that they have perfected that model, they want to do more, that will make them evil. The group of engineers responsible for some of the Nest products was recently issued patents for putting sensors, microphones, and cameras throughout our homes to accumulate more personal information than most of us would be comfortable with. There’s no stopping Google until they know every tiny personal detail about us. They’re following the model of Facebook, and we know how that’s turning out.

Lastly, Amazon has created an amazing online store. While not the most attractive, it’s worked well. Rarely do we need to search for the right button, our choices are clearly laid out, and we can generally find things fast, read their reviews, and make a purchase quickly. But over the past year, they’ve not left well enough alone. Often now when searching for a product, you get the first page filled with paid ads, making it more difficult to do what you came to do. Some ads are even deceptive, as a recent article described, placing ads in the middle of a bridal registry, tricking buyers to purchase an item they assumed was requested by the bride. When making some purchases, I’m now constantly asked if I want a warranty or a subscription for much of what I buy; many times, those options are not even appropriate. And what once was simple shipping options have now become as difficult as choosing another product. Again, the engineers at Amazon seem not to know when they had a successful site and are now making it much more difficult to use.

I’m not against progress when it improves things that benefit the customer. But, in the case of some of these giants of tech, their greed seems to have taken over, messing up what once were excellent products.

Published by

Phil Baker

Phil Baker is a product development expert, author, and journalist covering consumer technology. He is the co-author with Neil Young of the forthcoming book, “To Feel the Music,” and the author of “From Concept to Consumer.” He’s a former columnist for the San Diego Transcript, and founder of Techsperts, Inc. You can follow him at www.bakerontech.com.

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